After a brief, haunting prologue, Karnan begins with some on screen text, apparently designed to explain that the events it is about to relate happened once (the film is somewhat based on real events) are no longer possible in our enlightened present. I say “apparently” because the only words Amazon subtitled for the text are “before 1997”. This should, of course, be understood as a lie, something filmmakers sometimes have to slap on to their films to satisfy the demands of the kinds of governments their films attack (see Derek Tsang’s Better Days, for a recent example). Karnan is a film about injustice, about oppression, about revolution, about how all cops are bastards, and about how violence begets violence and doesn’t itself solve anything but sometimes might maybe help pave the way for solutions. It’s a thorny film about a complicated present, infused with as much revolutionary spirit as a great propaganda film like Mikhail Kalatazov’s I Am Cuba, but with an ambivalence about revolutionary violence that’s wholly anathema to propaganda.
Dhanush stars as Karnan, an angry young man in a Tamil village so small it doesn’t even have a bus stop. To get out into the world, the people have to travel to the neighboring town, where they are bullied, treated as bumpkins, and worse. As injustice after injustice piles up against his townspeople, Karnan begins to lead a kind of resistance: beating up the guys who bullied a girl’s father, sparking a fight at a rigged athletic match, helping trash a bus that had refused to stop for a pregnant woman and her family. The latter incident brings the whole village together, as even the elders, who have long cautioned against standing up to their neighbors and the local police that enable them, get involved in the protest. It all ends, as these things usually do, in horrible violence and self-sacrifice and the near-destruction of the village.
Director and writer Mari Selvaraj resists at every turn the opportunity to turn this scenario into a Bacurau-like story of pulpy blood-letting. Instead he emphasizes the mythic qualities of the struggle, framing Karnan and the symbol of his right to lead, the village sword he wins in an early challenge, against the sky, a hero in whose struggle we can find catharsis for our own frustrations with unjust systems. The film is infused with the spirits of the dead (literally, in the case of Karnan’s younger sister, whose death in the midst of indifferent highway traffic opens the story) and the past (the headless statues and paintings that invoke the community’s long past and predict its near future). The music, all drums and choral voices, fuse tradition with modern cinema, with a few diegetic dance sequences but otherwise used to score montages of village life and the preparations for war. Nor does it resemble a village defense film like Seven Samurai: there’s no planning or stratagems here, it’s instead about the pure, instinctive human desire to fight back against one’s oppressors. It’s a film about how primally good it feels to stand up for yourself and you family and friends, about how good it feels to punch a bad guy in the face. But it’s also about how that never actually solves anything, and in fact only tends to make things so much worse.
There’s an epilogue though, as there always is. Ten years later, we return to the village and find that all the problems have been solved. We’re told that people showed up and helped the villagers file claims for their complaints (a deus ex bureaucrat?) and now they have a bus stop and the kids can go to college and everything is lush and green and happy, despite, you know, all the deaths. It doesn’t seem the least bit true.
*It’s been explained to me that the historical context here is essential. In 1995, police attacked a village called Kodiyankulam, which was populated by people of the Dalit caste. It was the flash point of a series of conflicts between the villagers and more dominant members within that same caste. The conflict in the film is similar to the actual events, though fictionalized. My mistake was in not noting the centrality of caste to the conflict between the two villages in the film, a vitally important issue that I, in my ignorance, failed to pick up on. It’s also the case that in my desire to read the film through my own (limited, American) lens, by seeing it as a film about revolution in general, I delegitimized the specific concerns of the caste struggle itself, of which this film is certainly very much about. My apologies and thanks to those who took the time to explain what I’d missed.